The collective silence of 111,384 people at Michigan Stadium was deafening.
Cincinnati quarterback Hayden Moore ran 46 yards right through the heart of the Wolverines’ defense all the way to the Michigan 12-yard line. Then he threw a short pass to wide receiver Kahlil Lewis, who ran the rest of the way into the end zone.
The Wolverines’ 10-point lead had been cut down to three just minutes into the second half. The packed crowd — eager to see No. 8 Michigan in action for the first time in 2017 and expecting to watch the Wolverines easily handle the Bearcats — stood stunned.
Added onto a sloppy first half filled with fumbled handoffs and special teams gaffes, Michigan looked to be in serious danger of an unfathomable upset.
However, by the end of the third quarter, order had been restored, and the Wolverines (2-0) were on their way to a 36-14 victory.
“There was a lot of good and there was a lot of times where we’re not doing our assignments,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “… Wins are kind of tough to come by, and we’re happy to have this one.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight led Michigan on a seven-play, 80-yard drive to close the third frame — orchestrating the offense with a surprising level of skill given his first-half miscues. Dropping short passes across the field, Speight continuously found the open man and gave him space to make moves. Junior receiver Grant Perry caught one of those passes over the middle, and then turned on the jets before leaping into the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown.
“That was a no-huddle call where we got to the line of scrimmage and assessed the look,” Speight said. “I think Grant kind of made eye contact with me, knowing that it was going to be open. And sure enough, it was.”
Michigan went back up 24-14, and Cincinnati wouldn’t pose a threat again.
When the game first began, it looked likely to be an easy day at the office, but multiple gaffes slowed down the Wolverines and kept the Bearcats in it.
On its opening drive, Michigan took just four minutes to find the end zone. Speight found sophomore wide receiver Kekoa Crawford on consecutive possessions, first for a 14-yard completion on third down and then on a deep ball across the middle of the field. A wide open Crawford made the latter grab to give the Wolverines their first touchdown of the game.
After junior safety Tyree Kinnel intercepted a pass from Moore and took it back 28 yards for a pick-six, it looked like it would be a long afternoon for the Bearcats.
“Anytime we can score on the defensive end is pretty good,” Kinnel said. “Overall, I thought we did pretty good running to the ball fast. … What we do in practice is once we get the ball in our hands, we turn it into offense and we get to the nearest sideline and we block for our teammates.”
But then Cincinnati caught a fortunate break that turned the game on its head. After yet another three-and-out — highlighted by an eight-yard sack by linebacker Devin Bush Jr. — the ensuing punt hit the foot of a Wolverine blocker, and a Bearcat recovered it at the Michigan 38-yard line.
Cincinnati wasted no time taking advantage of the special teams miscue. Running back Mike Boone found some space for a 16-yard gain and then Moore did the same for six. The Bearcats went right back to Boone, and after two failed attempts, he punched it into the end zone on third down to put Cincinnati on the board.
On the first play of the second quarter, Speight fumbled a handoff for a loss of seven yards. Though he recovered it, the red zone trip didn’t get any better, as two subsequent incompletions led the Wolverines to settle for a 28-yard field goal, which redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin nailed.
On Michigan’s next drive, a similar story played out. After double-digit gains on the ground and through the air, the Wolverines had the ball at the Cincinnati 30-yard line. But when Speight attempted to complete a handoff to Crawford, the ball came loose, and Speight couldn’t recover. The Bearcats pounced on it and stopped the drive to keep the score at 17-7 at the halftime break.
“Obviously there were times that maybe we weren’t all on the same page,” Speight said. “That fumbled exchange with Kekoa. But those are simple fixes.”
By the end of the third quarter, though, Michigan was back under control and went on to finish the game in style. The Wolverines tacked on 12 more points in the final quarter, highlighted by a pick-six from sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill.
While the early mistakes could have set the stage for a disastrous afternoon, Michigan maintained its composure just enough to escape any real danger.
“We just try to stay together as a group and play for each other,” Kinnel said. “We’re going to control what’s controllable, so we just came out, kept going and tried to fight our way through it.”